“It is a contest between philosophy and its rivals
to speak with the power of truth.”
Interview with Michael A. Rinella about Plato, drug culture, ecstasy
and philosophy in ancient greece
Dr. Rinella, what significance, what weight did the Greeks of the Classical Period attach to intoxication?
Let us consider the question of significance or awareness first. It surprises me that there are many analysts who believe that intoxication was not a condition subjected to a constant, regular, and on-going ethical inquiry in ancient Greece, simply because ancient thought lacked, to give one example, something like our contemporary theory of addiction. In other words they argue that the ancient Greeks had no “drug problem” and were in a sense oblivious about drugs. Well of course that is true if by “drug problem” you are thinking of the specific set of responses to recreational drug use in play since roughly the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But if you consider Greek thought on intoxication in its own terms you’ll find a discourse as rich and complex as the ancient discussion of food and sex.
And the emphasis?
The question of weight or emphasis is equally important. In contemporary market economies non-productive drug use has been problematized as a disease condition to be subjected to a juridical intervention by a criminal justice system, a medico-therapeutic intervention by a drug-abuse system, or both because these systems tend to operate in loose conjunction or alliance with one another (each having a normalizing role within late-capitalist society). In ancient Greece intoxication was problematized largely on aesthetic grounds. At least until Plato, who was considerably more sophisticated than his peers in terms of understanding human psychology.
What were the parameters of an aesthetic appraisal of intoxication? And what did Plato change?
The central idea within the symposia of the elite was to drink well, and wisely. And by “drink well” they meant becoming intoxicated. If you met this goal your peers considered you properly aristocratic, refined, and a truly attractive human being. The ancient Greek poets speak of this constantly. To allow the mind to be completely unseated by a substance such as wine was considered boorish, ugly, and unattractive for several reasons. On the one hand it was considered unmanly; it made the warrior emotional and feminine. On another it led to hubristic behavior, something that was, in a culture heavily based on honor and shame rather than responsibility and guilt, about as taboo as you could get. The ugly side of intoxication was seen as a primary cause of discord in the social body politic, what the Greeks called stasis. In the politically charged atmosphere following the end of the Peloponnesian War and the trial and execution of Socrates Plato comes along and introduces a new way to think about social discord. For instance in the Republic he uses the term stasiazonta, or “stasis within” and this allows him to begin to question the value of intoxicated states from a new perspective.
Was the most common choice of intoxication at that time, wine, comparable with our wine today?
No, it really wasn’t, and this is a continuing source of misunderstanding. Ancient wine was frequently combined with other substances, including what we would today call “recreational drugs.” The surviving textual record offers ample proof of this but, as classicist Carl A. P. Ruck and a handful of others discovered, purely textual evidence was easy to dismiss or, worse, simply ignore. Now, however, the latest techniques of archeological analysis have confirmed the presence of other intoxicants in Greek wine, to the point it is simply incontrovertible. I’m thinking specifically of anthropologist Patrick E. McGovern’s works, like Ancient Wine.
On which occasions and how often were which people drinking wine?
The occasions were many. Drinking might be done in public, or private, in a religious context, or a recreational context. And the ethics of consumption would have varied depending on the situation. For example the festival of the new wine, the Anthesteria, would have been a public and religious setting for drinking, while the wine drinking and sacrifices that took place before the theatrical performances, the City Dionysia, would have been primarily public and recreational, though of course the high priest of Dionysus was seated in the front row during performances. The drinking party of the wealthy during the Classical era may be thought of as private and recreational drinking, but at the same time the ritual libation s of wine that commenced this drinking in private were themselves religious in character. The question how often or how deeply people were drinking wine is difficult to assess over the gulf of time but I suspect it was on an order different than we are accustomed too. In Plato’s Laws, for example, the Spartan Megillus mentions having seen the entire city of Tarentum drunk during the Dionysia.
And Plato’s new perspective on intoxicated states led to a new view on ecstasy as well?
Closer to the reverse. Many of Plato’s dialogues dissect claims to knowledge and authority that are based on non-rational methods, and this leads him to new insights on the value of both intoxication and ecstasy. The ancient Greeks had a saying that translates to, approximately, “truth comes from wine and children,” and this view was extolled by many poets – whose cultural authority was great – and Plato’s contemporaries in the Athenian upper class. If the project of philosophy was to know the truth through rigorous intellectual training that led to contemplation of the eternal forms, as it was for Plato, you can see how an ecstasy-based path to wisdom was going to be a problem. It is a contest between philosophy and its rivals to speak with the power of truth.
So Plato sees no place for ecstasy in the civil society?
I would distinguish between his views of civil society and the politics. On the one hand Plato is careful not to tread too heavily on ground ordinarily reserved for religion, such the cult of Dionysus or the Eleusinian Mysteries. An accusation of impiety was something you avoided if you had any sense. On the other hand he is quite hostile to social intoxication and wants to cordon that off from as many people as possible. In the political realm he sees, at most, a place for the use of dialectic to perceive, almost like a religious revelation, the eternal and unchanging forms. At the same time he appears quite pessimistic about more than a handful of individuals ever reaching such a stage of enlightenment. All in all, he has very little use for ecstasy. He may borrow some of the linguistic trappings of, for example, religious ecstasy but in the end ecstasy winds up being replaced by philosophy.
Is it correct to say that Plato’s ideas about intoxication constitute the ground for the western “drug politics” today?
In a certain sense, yes. Michel Foucault correctly identifies Plato’s dialogues as the soil, the leaven, the climate and the environment from which a number of spiritual and intellectual movements will germinate, rise, and grow over the next two millennia. Plato’s general distrust of, and hostility toward, the pharmakon, the drug, reappears in many ancient texts. Dio Chrysosotom and Clement of Alexandria, for example. Look at Immanuel Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals. Like Plato, he allows for moderate use of wine to promote friendly conversation, but for the drugs that produce what he calls “dream euphoria” there is zero tolerance. The individuals who use these drugs are, Kant writes, less than beasts, and may be denied treatment as human beings. And Kant’s influence on moral philosophy over the last two hundred years is undeniable. If you look at the arguments against “drug abuse” in early twentieth-century publications, like the American Journal of Mental Hygiene, the perspective on drug use is distinctly Kantian.
What are the disadvantages of this perspective on drug use?
The perspective is questionable for two reasons. First, it fails to see that the arguments it advances are historically situated. Said another way, during the Industrial Revolution a set of strategies arose to address the question of ecstasy and identity – including recreational drug use – that were unique to that time period. The response to the question of recreational drug use will be as different in the post-industrial age as our present policies are from the pre-industrial age. To give a very simple example, what would be the purpose of “driving while intoxicated” laws if your vehicle is intelligent enough to drive itself? Given the growth of artificial intelligence, this could happen within a century. Second, these discourses of “drug abuse” can hide behind the veneer of “science” but at their core they are rhetorical, polemics. They do not engage in dialogue, they speak in monologues, encase themselves in privileges they alone possess and will never agree to critically examine. The recreational drug user is denied as a subject having the right to speak. He or she is reduced to a data point in a problem of epidemiology. You do not have a dialogue with an epidemic. It is a threat, an enemy, against whom any action is just and capable of being justified.
Is there a need for re-integrating ecstasy into our culture?
There is. First, because there is some evidence suggesting that taking a “break from identity” is not a disease condition to be subjected to criminal or medico-therapeutic “intervention,” it is actually common in the natural world, and ought to be something we view as both rational and healthy. Second, because the consequences of drug prohibition are both too costly in a monetary sense and too odious in a democratic and human rights sense to tolerate any longer.
Why should we use chemical intoxication instead of other forms of reaching ecstasy?
If marijuana products were legalized, for example, I really don’t think you would see them replacing “the runner’s high,” or organized religion, or artistic creation. People will still enjoy running a marathon for its own sake, attending religious rites for spiritual consolation, and the thrill of performing music and the rush of dancing. The techniques or paths for reaching ecstasy should not be seen as mutually exclusive, but rather complimentary. Seen this way, recreational intoxication is simply a single facet of a very ordinary, common, and natural human behavior.
About the Author
Michael A. Rinella is instructor of political theory at Empire State College in New York, and former senior editor at the State University of New York Press. In his forthcoming book Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens (Lexington Books) he examines emerging concern s for controlling state s of ecstasy in ancient Greece, focusing on the dialogues of Plato.